United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first major document to provide a comprehensive and authoritative statement of international human rights norms.

Summary of Event

The United Nations Charter includes the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms among the principal purposes of the organization. It does not, however, specify their substance. One of the principal human rights contributions of the United Nations has been to forge an international normative consensus on a list of human rights. The central expression of that consensus is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) United Nations;human rights Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [kw]United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948) [kw]Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations Adopts the (Dec. 10, 1948) [kw]Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations Adopts the Universal (Dec. 10, 1948) [kw]Human Rights, United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of (Dec. 10, 1948) [kw]Rights, United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human (Dec. 10, 1948) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) United Nations;human rights Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [g]North America;Dec. 10, 1948: United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[02710] [g]United States;Dec. 10, 1948: United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[02710] [c]United Nations;Dec. 10, 1948: United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[02710] [c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1948: United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[02710] Roosevelt, Eleanor Humphrey, John Cassin, René Malik, Charles Habib Chang, P. C.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights Commission on Human Rights, U.N. Human rights;commissions , a permanent functional commission of the Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC), was given principal responsibility for drafting an international human rights covenant (treaty). The commission decided to prepare a nonbinding declaration as quickly as possible. This became the Universal Declaration. Meanwhile, work continued on the more difficult and more controversial task of producing a binding treaty, which was finally completed in 1966, in the form of two covenants, one dealing with civil and political rights, the other with economic, social, and cultural rights. They were opened for signature and ratification in that year. The Universal Declaration and the covenants together are frequently referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights.

At its first meeting, in January, 1947, the commission appointed a drafting committee made up of its three officers, Eleanor Roosevelt (United States), P. C. Chang (China), and Charles Habib Malik (Lebanon). In March, representatives from Australia, Chile, France, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union were added. During the summer, an outline (initially drafted by John Humphrey, the director of the Secretariat’s Division of Human Rights and revised by the French delegate, René Cassin) was debated. By Christmas, a complete draft was circulated to governments for comment. On June 18, 1948, the full commission adopted a draft declaration.

In the fall of 1948, the Third (Social and Humanitarian) Committee of the General Assembly devoted eighty-one meetings to discussion of the draft declaration and nearly seventy proposed amendments. This arduous process was eased somewhat because the chair of the committee was Malik, the rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights. On December 10, the committee completed its work. The full General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with none opposed and eight abstentions.

South Africa abstained because of the declaration’s provisions on racial discrimination. Saudi Arabia abstained over its lack of rights for women and of rights to change one’s religion. The other abstentions came from the Soviet Union and its allies, whose delegates believed that economic and social rights were not given enough emphasis. Thus, although the declaration was not adopted unanimously, no states voted against it and only two believed that it went too far (and even then only in a few areas).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the claim that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 1 echoes these sentiments of the preamble, holding that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Articles two through twenty-eight then lay out a comprehensive set of human rights.

The Universal Declaration, however, contains no implementation or enforcement mechanisms. It is only a statement of principles and aspirations, without a mechanism or program for realizing them. In 1966, the International Human Rights Covenants gave binding international legal force to the rights of the Universal Declaration and established rudimentary international monitoring procedures. The covenants did not, however, fundamentally alter the substance of the declaration. There have also been important treaties dealing with particular human rights such as racial discrimination, women’s rights, torture, and children’s rights. These too are best seen as supplements to the Universal Declaration that give greater specificity to particular rights and establish international monitoring procedures. They do not significantly alter the norms laid out in the Universal Declaration.

The Universal Declaration remains the single most important statement of international human rights norms. It is widely commended by virtually all states, from all regions and all ideological perspectives—even those states that systematically violate its provisions. In recognition of its importance, most countries celebrate December 10 as Human Rights Day.

The Universal Declaration, however, has always been controversial. In particular, the relative weight of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, which led to the abstention of the Soviet bloc states, remained a matter of intense controversy in the following decades. In fact, this issue often transformed international discussions of human rights in the 1950’s and 1960’s into exercises in Cold War ideological rivalry.

Nevertheless, the principle that all human rights are interdependent and indivisible, first established in the Universal Declaration, has largely prevailed. The Universal Declaration is not a list from which states may pick and choose as they see fit. Rather, it is a comprehensive set of minimum standards of domestic political behavior. The fundamental unity of all human rights, exemplified by the existence of a single Declaration containing both civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights without any indication of categorical differences or priorities, has been central to the international definition of human rights since 1948.

Another complaint has concerned the alleged Western bias of the Universal Declaration. When it was drafted, most of Africa and much of Asia was under colonial rule. Only half of the commission’s eighteen members, and only three of the eight members of the drafting committee, were from developing countries. One consequence was that the original declaration did not recognize the right of peoples to self-determination. That was remedied by the 1966 International Human Rights Covenants, also known as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) .

At the 1994 World Conference on Human Rights World Conference on Human Rights (1994) , China and certain Islamic countries challenged the idea of the universality of human rights, claiming that cultural differences had to be honored. Even taking such cultural differences into account, the vast majority of rights listed in the declaration flow from the inherent dignity of the human person, a principle that is hard to refute on cultural grounds. A number of critics in developing countries have argued that the Universal Declaration systematically disparages collective rights in favor of the individual rights emphasized in the West.

The most striking fact about the updated list of internationally recognized human rights is the persistence of the original list presented in the Universal Declaration. Virtually all the rights in the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, except for the right to self-determination, were enumerated in the Universal Declaration (although often in much less detail). Furthermore, only one right in the Universal Declaration (the right to own property) is not included in those covenants. The constitutions of some two dozen developing countries that achieved their independence after 1948 contain explicit references to the Universal Declaration, and many others have drawn their definition of rights from the Declaration, sometimes verbatim. Virtually all states treat the Declaration as an authoritative statement of international human rights norms.


Before World War II, there were few explicit international human rights norms, although customary international law, and the natural law tradition on which it was largely based, contained the seeds of most modern human rights norms. Two centuries of the gradual ascendancy of positivist theories of international law, left individuals largely subject to the whims of their governments. Gradually, in the twentieth century, governments came to recognize again the need to take the treatment of human beings seriously at the international level.

The Treaty of Versailles Versailles, Treaty of (1919) , which ended World War I, established a (very weak and incomplete) system to protect minorities’ rights through the League of Nations. The Treaty of Versailles also created the International Labor Organization, which began to deal with workers’ rights issues in the 1920’s. The 1926 International Slavery Convention dealt with slavery. Such international efforts to protect individual human rights were clearly exceptions.

Until 1945, the human rights practices of states were treated as internationally protected exercises of the sovereign prerogative of states. International human rights law basically did not exist. The human rights practices of other states simply were not considered legitimate matters for either bilateral or multilateral international action.

The Nuremberg Trials of 1945 introduced into international legal practice the idea of crimes against humanity. Nuremberg, however, dealt only with the particular case of the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities. It did not address human rights violations short of genocide or the practices of states other than Germany. Furthermore, the prosecution at Nuremberg was forced to deal with the uncomfortable fact that although the Nazis were obviously guilty of great moral crimes, such crimes against humanity had not been prohibited explicitly by prewar international law, there being few who would have thought that outlawing murder by millions was necessary, when murder itself was proscribed in the legal systems and moral codes of all nations.

The Universal Declaration was the United Nations’ first major response to this distressing and embarrassing absence of an explicit international law of human rights, and the even more shocking claims made by governments about how they could abuse human beings in the name of racial purity or any other principle. The Universal Declaration, however, forthrightly refers to itself as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” It does not claim to create binding international legal obligations. In fact, as a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly it is technically speaking only a recommendation to states.

Many lawyers, scholars, and activists have argued that over time, the declaration has become a part of customary international law. Whatever its technical legal status, the Declaration has become a political standard of reference in human rights diplomacy. Numerous U.N. General Assembly resolutions have reaffirmed the document’s centrality. It is explicitly referred to as a standard in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the Charter of the Organization of African Unity. Virtually all states use the Universal Declaration as a point of reference when defending or criticizing the human rights practices of other states or their own practices.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become a normative standard of political legitimacy in the contemporary world. It is an authoritative international statement of the minimum standards of treatment that every state owes to all of its citizens. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) United Nations;human rights Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berting, Jan, et al., eds. Human Rights in a Pluralist World: Individuals and Collectivities. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1990. Part one considers the Universal Declaration forty years after its formulation. The remaining parts focus principally on the relationship between individual and collective rights and varying cultural conceptions of human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2d ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. This philosophical inquiry into the meaning of human rights and the policy contexts in which human rights operates is recommended for advanced students. References, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Humphrey, John P. Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Transnational, 1984. A sometimes engaging and always opinionated memoir of the United Nations’ first director of the Division of Human Rights and author of the initial draft of the Universal Declaration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, M. Glen. “The Contributions of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt to the Development of International Protection for Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 9 (February, 1987): 19-48. A look at the special contributions of Franklin Roosevelt in helping to inspire U.N. action on human rights and of Eleanor Roosevelt in bringing the Universal Declaration to fruition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morsing, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Historical study of the declaration meant to guide its interpretation in the present as well as to reveal the factors originally leading to its creation. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramcharan, B. G., ed. Human Rights: Thirty Years After the Universal Declaration. The Hague, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979. Chapters 1, 2, and 7 deal with the Universal Declaration and later efforts at setting international human rights norms. The remaining chapters focus on strategies and institutions for implementing these norms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwelb, Egon. Human Rights and the International Community: The Roots and Growth of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948-1963. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964. An accessible general survey of the origins of the Universal Declaration and its place in the emergence of human rights as a significant issue in international relations in the postwar era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shelton, Dinah L., ed. Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. 3 vols. Detroit, Mich.: Macmillan Reference, 2005. That there exists a three-volume encyclopedic work on genocide and crimes against humanity is most relevant here. Includes a glossary, maps, primary sources, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tolley, Howard, Jr. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986. This is the authoritative work on the Commission on Human Rights. Chapter 2 briefly discusses the process of drafting in the general context of the political controversies in the commission during its early years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations Commission on Human Rights. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” In The Human Rights Reader, edited by Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1990. One of many sources for the text of the Universal Declaration, which deserves reading in its entirety.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wagner, Teresa, and Leslie Carbone, eds. Fifty Years After the Declaration: The United Nations’ Record on Human Rights. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001. Anthology detailing the impact the declaration had—and failed to have—on human rights and international law through the end of the twentieth century.

International League for the Rights of Man Is Founded

American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Is Adopted

United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide

European Convention on Human Rights Is Signed

United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved

United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty

United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child

Amnesty International Is Founded

Proclamation of Tehran Sets Human Rights Goals

Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Categories: History